The Historic Center of São Luís do Maranhão stands out for the uniformity and simple and regular beauty of its buildings, forming one of the largest architectural ensembles of Portuguese essence still preserved in Latin America.
The architecture we inherited from the Portuguese is the richest part of São Luís’ historical heritage.
A collection of colonial mansions that reflect well how the colonizers who arrived in the city lived.
This architectural ensemble of São Luís do Maranhão is so important that it was declared a World Heritage Site.
Just take a walk through the streets and alleys of Praia Grande to get to know a piece of the history of Maranhão and Brazil.
One of the most striking details of the formation of architecture of São Luís is, without a doubt, the tiles.
The capital’s tile collection gathers gems that give a hint of what the capital of Maranhão was like a few centuries ago: a place full of luxury.
In fact, there was another very strong reason for the application of tiles on the facades that referred to the fact that they reflect the sun’s rays very intensely, as it softens the heat inside the buildings, since it absorbs it less, providing better environmental comfort. So, the tiles had this dual function of beautifying and maintaining the quality of the milder environment in an equatorial climate.
Factors that led this set to compose the UNESCO list of cultural heritage of the world, in 1997.
It has a colonial architectural collection estimated at about 4,000 buildings, spread over more than 220 hectares, most of them with gazebos, many covered with Portuguese tiles.
Built by the lords who commanded cotton production in the region, the manor houses and sobrados are marks of the city’s economic heyday.
Formed by the neighborhoods of Praia Grande and Desterro, the region today concentrates museums, culture centers, theaters, cinema, bars, restaurants, fair and a multitude of craft stores.
There are also squares, charming alleys, staircases, hillsides and some of the most beautiful streets in the historic part of the city, such as Rua Portugal and Rua do Giz and Largo do Comércio.
The Historic Center area is closed to vehicular traffic.
Praia Grande is perfect for peaceful walks. In this case, sneakers and low sandals are ideal for walking on the cobblestone floor, up and down slopes and stairs. It is recommended to wear light clothing and sunscreen.
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Colonial buildings and architectural ensemble of São Luís
The historian of the Federal University of Maranhão, Antônia Mota, has several researches on the origins of colonial buildings. According to her, most of the historic buildings were erected more than a century after the foundation of São Luís.
The moment was promising in trade since the Lusitanian elite lived in the city. “Through the Grão-Pará and Maranhão trade company, the Marquis of Pombal brought resources and it was at this time that the cultivation and export of cotton and rice developed, which favored the development of the region, the arrival of many Portuguese attracted by business, the arrival of African slaves to work in these crops and the great increase in population “, explains Antônia Mota.
The professor recalls that, at the time, the city also benefited from the reconstruction of Lisbon, which had been devastated by an earthquake. “São Luís was the place of residence for landowners and merchants, so in a way it became very similar to Lisbon, because the construction techniques came a lot during this period when Lisbon was being rebuilt,” she says.
The carved stones, called “pedras de cantaria”, which are scattered along the sidewalks and streets of the Historic Center, came to São Luís as ballast for Portuguese ships.
Today, all this architecture still enchants people from all over the world who visit the city. Fábio Colignac is the manager of an inn that has been operating for six years in a mansion built in 1835 in the Historic Center.
Tourists are impressed by the time travel in the hotel.
The building is like almost all of them of the period: in the central part is the manor house, a common area usually with trees and plants. The rooms are comfortable and have not lost their main characteristics.
The stairs, the wooden floor, the handrails, and even the hammocks’ scapulae are original. “This is the great challenge, to adapt this mansion without giving up the comfort that is usually sought in a hotel, such as air conditioning and private bathroom with hot water,” says Fábio.
Greek Nikos Papazarkada came from Athens and fell in love with what he found in the city.
He says he has never seen anything like it in the world and that he found everything beautiful and charming. For many, the scenery of the capital of Maranhão is truly irresistible and has been so for 400 years.
An architectural and urbanistic ensemble from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries
In its old center, São Luís gathers an architectural and urbanistic ensemble from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with about 5600 properties listed (classified) by the state and federal government, distributed in the extensive area that forms the historic center.
These are buildings of different periods and styles (traditional Portuguese, neoclassical, eclectic, neocolonial, art deco and modern), most of them civil architecture.
The predominant architectural typology in the urban landscape is composed of sobrados (buildings with more than one floor), manor houses, half-timbered houses, ¾-timbered houses, half-timbered houses and door-and-windows.
There are a considerable number of buildings with façades covered in the 19th century with tiles, mainly from Portugal.
The oldest architectural examples are from the 18th and 19th centuries, since in the early years of Portuguese colonization and until the mid-18th century, Maranhão’s economy was reduced to subsistence production.
The Maranhão historian Mário Meireles reports that the miserable situation of São Luís in 1683 was that of a city “cramped, with tortuous streets, lined with sidewalks and without sidewalk, in which almost all the houses were made of mud, covered with straw, with urupemas in the windows”.
The state’s economy developed from 1755 with the creation of the Companhia Geral do Grão-Pará e Maranhão, “an enterprise structured by the Marquis of Pombal, minister of D. José I (1750-1777), who stimulated, through financing, the acquisition of tools and slave labor, placing Maranhão in the production and export circuit of agricultural products, mainly cotton”.
Marques (1970) comments that the creation of the Company “profoundly altered the life of the State, opening its agriculture and its trade to a period of frank progress that translated into the material enrichment and intellectual improvement of society”.
The promising economy of Maranhão, based essentially on slave labor for the production of crops, went into decline at the end of the 19th century, shortly after the abolition of slavery in 1888, also aggravated by the consequences of the fall in the price of cotton on the international market.
price of cotton on the international market.
The attempts, not always successful, to replace agricultural activity with the implementation of textile industries, culminates in the stagnation of Maranhão at the end of the 19th century and, inevitably, with strong reflexes in the urban development of São Luís.
Architecture of houses and townhouses of São Luís
In the ups and downs of the slopes and staircases of the Historic Center of São Luís, the nuances of Luso-Brazilian colonial architecture are drawn.
As is still the case today, the fronts of the houses lining the streets of Praia Grande reflected the social position of their owners.
They are joined by churches, chapels, official buildings, farmhouses and industrial facilities, providing links and identity.
In the second half of the 18th century, when the city’s population jumped from 854 inhabitants to 16,580, mainly due to the migration of families from the Azores archipelago and, above all, the introduction of African slave labor, the neighborhood began to concentrate economic activities, with the opening of commercial houses and, consequently, greater appreciation of urban land and greater diversity in the size of lots.
Doors and windows, half-timbered houses and townhouses are some of the patterns of buildings erected in the city.
Throughout the formation of this urban web, the old center did not distinguish between main and secondary roads, nor did it impose the formation of exclusive residential areas.
Housing and commercial establishments shared the same space, giving the city an air of architectural homogeneity.
There are many variations: door and window, half dwelling, three-quarter dwelling, full dwelling, dwelling and a half, one-storey commercial house, one-storey house with basement, one-storey house with basement and belvedere, two- and three-storey townhouses, with or without basement and/or belvedere, four-storey townhouses.
These dwellings are distinguished more by the number of rooms than by their ornamentation or construction systems.
With the rise of commerce, street doors were added to the houses in Ludovico. Generally, the first floor was dedicated to commercial activities; the upper floors were the intimate rooms, with direct communication between them. Another peculiarity of the region’s residences is the hooks for hammocks scattered throughout the rooms, a custom that continues today.
Because the plots were deeper than they were wide, the buildings followed urban patterns that favored air circulation and lighting, basically developed in five plan projections: rectangular, L-shaped, C-shaped, U-shaped and O-shaped, with a predominance of L-shaped and U-shaped forms.
Facade Tiles of São Luís do Maranhão
The first information about the tiles of São Luís, according to Professor Dora Alcântara, appears in the “news about an import in the 18th century, which provides us with the recently published work by Domingos Vieira Filho, Azulejaria no Maranhão”.
In this work the historian Domingos Vieira Filho comments that in 1778 107,402 tiles arrived in São Luís.
These tiles were probably applied as tiles inside churches or houses, as the taste for tiling the facades of single-storey houses and townhouses in Maranhão only began in the 1840s.
In the middle of the 19th century, as Dora Alcântara reports in her work Azulejos Portugueses em São Luís do Maranhão, a “new way of using tiles emerged in Brazil, which led it to move from the interior of churches, convents, palatial residences or buildings for official use, to the exterior” of the façades.
External tile cladding became widespread in coastal cities from north to south, including Belém, São Luís, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre, among other cities with a less frequent practice of tiling façades.
In the 19th century, the golden age of Maranhão’s economy, tiles were widely accepted as a façade covering material, especially in properties belonging to Portuguese planters and merchants, enriched by the production and export of cotton and rice.
This acceptance is attributed to the aesthetic improvement that tiles bring to facades, while protecting them from the winter rains that occur for six months in the region.
In the 19th century, a significant number of carpet tiles with various patterns, manufactured using the stamping technique, were imported from Portugal for use in the cladding of the façades of São Luis houses.
Between 1843 and 1879, several ships with loads of tiles arrived at the port of São Luís, 90% of which came from Lisbon and the rest from Porto.
São Luís also received, but in much smaller quantities, tiles from France, Belgium and Germany.
The application of tiles on façades is done in full, partial or isolated adornments.
The tiling is usually on the main façade (including the front of the belvederes), but some corner buildings also have a side façade with full or partial tile cladding.
The tiles covering the façades are of the carpet or plain type, made in the techniques of stamping, decal, relief and marbling.
Most of the patterns define the composition with the repetition (with rotation) of four pieces, but there are patterns where the composition is defined in a single piece.
When there was no corner piece suitable for a particular trim, it was common to make a half-square cut (45º) to adapt the orthogonal combination of the frieze.
Some tiles due to their geometric design structure allow for variations in the composition of the carpet.
In São Luís, the configuration or positioning of the pieces “of tiles on the façades acquired peculiar characteristics due to the various forms of application of a standard unit, thus appearing different compositions of carpets of the same tile”.
See also – São Luís do Maranhão Facade Tiles
Tourist Spots of the Historic Center of São Luís MA
- Church of the Cathedral and Episcopal Palace
- Palace of La Ravardière
- Palácio Cristo Rei
- Palácio dos Leões
- Praça Benedito Leite
- Rua Portugal and Rua do Trapiche
- Convent of Mercês
- Arthur Azevedo Theater
- Cafua das Mercês
- Casa do Maranhão
- Largo do Comércio
- Fonte das Pedras
- Fonte do Ribeirão
- Tulhas Market – Mercado das Tulhas
- Nhozinho House Museum
- Museu Solar dos Vasconcelos – Memorial of the Historical Center
- Historical and Artistic Museum of Maranhão
- Museum of Sacred Art
- Beco Catarina Mina
- João do Vale Theater
- Center of Creativity Odylo Costa Filho
- Alcione Nazaré Theater
1. Sé Church and Episcopal Palace
It is said that at the beginning of colonization, when the Portuguese and French were fighting for control of the land, the Battle of Guaxenduba (1614) took place.
Outnumbered compared to La Ravardière, Jerônimo de Albuquerque’s forces were reinforced by a female figure who gave strength to the combatants, serving them gunpowder that she herself made from the dust of the earth.
Address: Av. Pedro II, S/N – Center
Visitation: from Tuesday to Saturday, from 8am to 12pm and from 2:30pm to 5:30pm
2. Palace of La Ravardière
An example of administrative buildings from the colonial period, the Palais de La Ravardière was given its name in 1962 on the occasion of the city’s 350th anniversary.
It was built around 1689 and is one of the oldest buildings in the region. Today it houses the headquarters of the Municipal Government and features a bronze bust of Daniel de La Touche, Lord of La Ravardière, French commander and founder of São Luís.
Address: Avenida D. Pedro II, next to the Palácio dos Leões.
Visitation: external visitation only.
3. Cristo Rei Palace
Built in 1838 to serve as the residence of Comendador José Joaquim Teixeira Vieira, the property represents the luxury of the wealthy families of the colonial period.
It was sold in 1900 to the then US vice-consul who owned a banking house in São Luís. It is said that the consul used to serve the most sophisticated delicacies to beggars and the needy and, therefore, came to be called “godfather”.
In 1908, due to the bankruptcy of his bank and the numerous debts he had, he committed suicide and had the property auctioned. Since then, the palace has passed through numerous owners, until in 1953 it served as the seat of the Archbishopric and was renamed “Palacio Cristo Rey”. It currently houses the rectory of the Federal University of Maranhão.
Address: Praça Gonçalves, 351 – Largo dos Amores Dias – Center
Visitation: Monday to Friday, from 8am to 11am and from 2pm to 5pm
4. Palace of the Lions
With three thousand square meters of built area, carved with the exquisiteness of neoclassical architecture and located in front of the Bay of São Marcos, the Palace of the Lions serves as the official residence and headquarters of the Government of Maranhão.
It became known as Palácio dos Leões (Fort of São Felipe) due to the bronze lions that guard its entrances. Erected on what was once the Fort of São Luís, it took the form of a palace in 1776, when Governor Joaquim de Mello e Povoas remodeled the building with materials used from the extinct Jesuit house in Alcântara. Completely restored, it deserves to be seen not only for its architecture and sumptuousness, but also for the artistic treasures and relics kept inside.
Address: Av. Pedro II, S/N – Center
Visitation: Wednesday to Friday, from 14h to 17h, Saturdays and Sundays, from 15h to 17h
5. Benedito Leite Square
Another opportunity for a rest is to sit on one of the benches in the square and watch the movement of people.
Originally known as Largo Velho do Val, this place was frequented by prostitutes.
From the 19th century, it was urbanized and turned into a botanical garden, which was later dismantled and the bars that surrounded the place knocked down. It was named Benedito Pereira Leite Square after the statesman, who appears in a statue in the central flowerbed.
6. Rua Portugal and Rua do Trapiche
Rua Portugal is one of the main streets of the Historic Center of São Luís, where the most important commercial establishments were concentrated at the time of its construction.
It still maintains its roots today, as it has several stores and active commerce, as well as public offices. It is a hub where the Museum of Visual Arts and the Casa de Nhozinho (Museum that honors the Maranhão artisan Antônio Bruno Pinto Nogueira who, throughout his life, made toys and folklore figures in buriti) are located.
On the corner with Rua Portugal is Rua do Trapiche, where you will surely be enchanted by the Mora- da das Artes, home of several artists who open their doors for the visitation of their works.
7. Mercês Convent
Heading down Rua da Palma, we walked to the Convento das Mercês. Built in the 17th century, the extensive building is considered one of the Seven Treasures of São Luís’ Material Cultural Heritage.
In addition to the colonial architecture, it is possible to visit a significant exhibition on the history of the republic, whose items were donated by former president José Sarney.
8. Arthur Azevedo Theater
The most famous theater in São Luís is also one of the oldest in the country. It preserves the original neoclassical features that hold more than 200 years of history and a beauty comparable to few.
Inaugurated in 1817 as Teatro União, it was only in the following century that it finally gained the name of the great master of Brazilian dramaturgy.
In the early 1990s, its facilities and equipment were renovated, transforming the theater into one of the most modern environments for dramatic art in the country.
Address: Rua do Sol, 180 – Centro
Visitation: Tuesday to Friday, from 3pm to 5pm
9. Cafua das Mercês
The Cafua das Mercês is said to have been a trading post for blacks in São Luís, where they were exhibited and sold after disembarking.
Today, the small building houses the Museu do Negro, whose collection consists of typical pieces of a slave quarters, the replica of a pillory that was in Largo do Carmo, in the city center, and a curious collection of African handicrafts made of wood and ivory.
Address: Rua Jacinto Maia, Desterro, next to the Convent of Mercês.
Visitation: from Tuesday to Sunday, from 9am to 5pm.
10. House of Maranhão
Of the museums that deal with the folklore of Maranhão, this was the one that pleased me the most. The exhibition is well organized in the extensive shed on the second floor of this historic mansion in front of the pier.
There, too, prejudice is shown, this time mainly the racial issue that separated blacks from Europeans.
Most of the exhibition refers to the ox festivals, which began as a game of slaves and came to be radically persecuted by politicians and the police, but today is established as a democratic popular manifestation of the state.
11. Largo do Comércio
Typical square of a colonial city. Much of Ludovico’s history took place here. During the 18th and 19th centuries, this street in Praia Grande was used for the city’s commerce and today it houses establishments such as bars, restaurants, stores and tourist kiosks.
Even with the economic decline in the 30s, we still find the houses intact and with all their architectural beauty in Portuguese colonial style, facades covered with tiles and stonework.
12. Fountain of Stones
This site is a landmark. It was there, next to what was still a spring, that Jerônimo de Albuquerque camped his troops in October 1615 while expelling the French from São Luís.
In the best Portuguese colonial style, the Fonte das Pedras, set in a walled quadrangle, has a masonry pediment and frowns through which the water pours.
Address: Rua de Antonio Rayol, near the Central Market.
13. Ribeirão Fountain
Several mysteries surround the monument and make this fountain, built in 1796 to supply the population with water, even more curious. Its floor is covered with ashlar stones and the water, always plentiful, gushes out of carrancas in a slabbed tank.
The carrancas are figures of deformed aspects, commonly used in fountains, fountains and boat prows to scare away evil spirits.
The one on the fountain represents Neptune, the mythological god, lord of the seas and waters, who supplied the local population with clean water that flowed from his mouth.
Fantastic legends have also been created about its underground galleries. They say that it served as a means of communication between friars from one church to another. Also for transportation or escape of slaves and illegal trade of gold and precious stones. Another legend is about the enchanted serpent, which resides in the tunnels of the gallery and grows without stopping, and one day will destroy the island of São Luís, when the tail meets the head.
Address: between Rua do Ribeirão and Rua dos Afogados.
14. Tulhas Market
Also known as Feira da Praia Grande, this market operates in a 19th century building that has been divided into several kiosks for the sale of regional products such as cachaças (including tiquira, made from cassava), sweets, liquors, various foods, spices, clothing and accessories, pots, spices and everything you can imagine.
15. Nhozinho House Museum
The Casa de Nhozinho Museum is housed in a three-storey townhouse with a colonial tile façade.
The name Casa de Nhozinho is a tribute to the great Maranhão artisan Antônio Bruno Nogueira, known as Nhozinho, who stood out for making ox wheels made of buriti, despite being disabled.
There, visitors have a sample of material culture production techniques: pieces of indigenous crafts, toys from the 18th and 19th centuries and replicas or original pieces of typical Maranhão boats.
The museum is named after Antônio Bruno Pinto Nogueira, or Nhozinho, who was born in the early 20th century in a coastal town in northern Maranhão.
After a normal childhood, he developed an illness from the age of 12 which impaired his motor functions.
Confined to bed, he developed his manual skills by making toys and other objects such as cribs, boats, parrots, ox carts, safes, miniature animals and wooden dolls.
Later, the raw material was replaced by buriti, a porous stem of a palm tree native to Maranhão, softer and more malleable for cutting. In addition to the artisan’s works, pieces from various techniques are exhibited in this sobrado, as well as objects and artifacts from regional daily life, such as pestles, ox carts, fishing utensils, miniature boats, popular festival costumes and indigenous crafts.
Address: Rua Portugal, 185
Visitation: Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 6pm.
16. Solar dos Vasconcelos Museum – Historical Center Memorial
Solar dos Vasconcelos was built in the 19th century and is one of the most significant examples of São Luís architecture. It has a beautiful façade with two symmetrical floors and two porches framed in carved stonework.
Renovated and adapted, it received the collection of the Memorial of the Historic Centre, displaying models and photographic panels that record the entire history of preservation and revitalization of the Historic Centre of São Luís.
It also houses an important collection of models of typical boats from Maranhão.
Address: Rua da Estrela
Visitation: from Monday to Friday, from 9am and, on Saturdays, from 1pm.
17. Historical and Artistic Museum of Maranhão
The preserved Solar Gomes de Souza, built in 1836 in the center of São Luís, belonged to the family of the mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and parliamentarian Joaquim Gomes de Souza, Souzinha.
Transformed into a museum in 1973, the objects on display – furniture, English and French porcelain, glassware, crystal, and especially the Tauromaquia, an oil on canvas work from 1950, a genuine work by the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso – reconstitute the environments of the rich residences of Maranhão in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Before entering for a guided tour, appreciate the façade, a beautiful example of Portuguese colonial architecture.
Address: Rua do Sol, 302 – Center
Visitation: from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
18. Museum of Sacred Art
The Museum of Sacred Art is housed in the building next to the cathedral. A visit to the exhibition there is a good opportunity to learn a little about the history of the city, whose foundation had a Jesuit mass celebration.
The hundreds of pieces on display include sculptures, chalices, crucifixes and other objects used in masses.
The Museum of Sacred Art is next to the Historical and Artistic Museum. Located in a manor house with a tiled façade, where the Baron of Grajaú, Carlos Fernandes Ribeiro and his wife, the baroness Anna Rosa Vianna Ribeiro, once lived.
Today it is a unique space to contemplate and exhibit the valuable pieces of goldsmithery that tell the history of the Church in Maranhão. Its collection, which belongs in part to the Archdiocese of São Luís, consists of pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries in rococo and neoclassical styles.
Address: Rua 13 de Maio, 500 – Centro
Visitation: from 9am to 5:30pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 5pm.
19. Beco Catarina Mina
Beco Catarina Mina has a staircase with 35 wide steps made of lioz stones, dating from the 13th century. It was named after Mina Catarina Rosa Pereira de Jesus, a slave who kept a store there.
The famous captive, whose story is reminiscent of that of another equally famous slave, Xica da Silva, made a fortune thanks to her work and her connections with wealthy merchants in the region, who were literally jaw-dropped by her beauty.
Catarina gathered her fortune, bought her freedom and became a slave mistress, to be seen around town followed by a procession of capriciously dressed women.
Located in Praia Grande, in the Historic Center of São Luís.
20. João do Vale Theater
The João do Vale Theater is located in the heart of the historic center, in Largo do Comércio, Praia Grande, and is one of the most important cultural centers of São Luís.
It is a tribute to João Batista do Vale, one of the most important artists of Maranhão, elected an illustrious character of the 20th century and who has had works recorded by Nara Leão, Dolores Duran, Zé Kéti, Chico Buarque and, of course, Maria Bethânia, who interpreted his greatest success: “Carcará”.
The João do Vale Theater is the stage for regional and national shows, always bringing the best of music and dramaturgy to São Luís.
21. Odylo Costa Filho Creativity Center.
Cultural Complex in the Praia Grande neighborhood, the Ferreira Gullar Library, with a collection of works by authors from Maranhão and about Maranhão.
There is also the Cine Praia Grande, a room that shows art films, a gallery for temporary exhibitions and the Alcione Nazaré Theater, inaugurated in 1988 and with 215 seats.
The Center also offers art courses such as photography, drawing, sculpture and dance.
Address: Rampa do Comércio, 200, Praia Grande
Visitation: every day, from 8am to 8pm
22. Alcione Nazaré Theater
Also known as Praia Grande Theater, it was created in 1988 initially to receive amateur groups and rehearsals. It was named in honor of the singer Alcione, Marrom, from Maranhão, body and soul.
Address: Rua Rampa do Comércio – 200 – Centro Visitation: daily, from 8am to 8pm.
Tourism and Travel Guide to São Luís do Maranhão and the Northeast of Brazil